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November 28, 2012 12:58 pm

Ehud Barak’s Tangled Legacy

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

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Ehud Barak (right) with US Army Col. Thomas Jordan in 1999. Photo: wiki commons.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak – heroic military commander, failed politician, and bane of Jewish settlers – has announced his intention to resign from public office after the January election. Having severed his roots in the Labor Party, and with his tiny Independence Party unlikely to win enough votes to return him to the Knesset, Barak chose to call it a career – maybe.

Renowned as Israel’s most decorated soldier, Barak achieved military distinction as head of the Special Forces unit Sayeret Matkal that conducted commando attacks against terrorists during the 1970s. In its most stunningly successful raid, leaders of the PLO and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were tracked down and killed in Beirut in retaliation for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. (The film “Munich” captured the heroic audacity of the mission.)

Barak’s subsequent service as military chief of staff proved to be his launching pad to politics in 1995, when he became Prime Minister Rabin’s Minister of Internal Affairs. Three months later, after Rabin’s assassination, he became Minister of Foreign Affairs, then leader of the Labor Party and, in 1999, he defeated incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu to become Prime Minister.

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But Barak, like Rabin before him and his successor Ariel Sharon, demonstrated that military victories do not guarantee political success. Indeed, his brief term in office – the shortest of any Israeli prime minister – was a dismal failure. Ending Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, he opened the way for Hezbollah to become entrenched on its northern border, where it remains. Reiterating the standard left-wing trope that if Israel retained the territories that it won in the Six-Day War it would become either a bi-national or apartheid state, Barak chased peace negotiations with Yasir Arafat’s PLO.

Imagining that Palestinians were prepared for “a durable and lasting peace” with Israel, Barak participated in the Camp David summit fiasco, where Arafat rejected his astonishing offer to divide Jerusalem and relinquish 92% of biblical Judea and Samaria. One year later, after the eruption of the Second Intifada, Barak was resoundingly defeated by Ariel Sharon.

As Defense Minister (since 2007), Barak approved the destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor, presided over Operation Cast Lead, and authorized the recent assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. But his evident animosity to settlers repeatedly turned Jews against Jews. He supported Netanyahu’s capitulation to President Obama with a ten-month settlement freeze, even urging a two-month extension to further appease the President. Under Israeli law the Defense Minister must sign permits for Jews to purchase property in Judea and Samaria. In an interview earlier this year he boasted: “Not a single new settlement has been built in the last three years since this government is in power.”

Barak’s unrelenting hostility to settlers, and his determination to override their legal rights of property ownership, was most evident in Hebron. He repeatedly stymied efforts to rebuild the ancient Jewish community that was brutally destroyed during the Arab pogrom of 1929. As Prime Minister he had refused to issue building permits that his predecessor had authorized. As Defense Minister, he twice mobilized the army and police to evict residents from apartments on land purchased by a Jew in 1807. Referring to Hebron Jews as “cancerous tumors,” he pledged to “uproot this evil from our midst.”

In 2008, months after Jewish families moved into a building purchased from a willing Palestinian seller, the Defense Minister fulfilled his promise. Despite a video of the transaction that showed the seller receiving and counting his money, a cassette recording of his confirmation of the sale to a friend, and affirmation of the legality of the purchase by police investigators, Barak remained adamant.

Convinced that the presence of Jews in Hebron represented “attempts by small groups of radicals to undermine the authority of the state,” he ordered hundreds of soldiers and border police to storm the building and evict its residents. Two months ago a Jerusalem court finally upheld the legality of the purchase and ordered the government to return the property to its rightful Jewish owners.

At the moment Ehud Barak’s illustrious career in military and public life seems to be nearing its end. But come January, once the election results are in, a call from Prime Minister Netanyahu to return to the Defense Ministry just might be irresistible. Israeli politics has more encores than a rock concert.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey (Quid Pro Books).

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